THE WEEKLY HOWL IS TAKING ON BIG SODA

Death to Gurus: ESPN’s 30 for 30 released a 5 part podcast series on Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga, last month and it is a doozy. Mr. Choudhury built a yoga empire and then used his position to become a sexual predator. From ESPNW:

The most concise description of the 74-year-old is this: He's the yoga version of Harvey Weinstein. Both built empires (at its peak in 2006, Choudhury had 650 eponymous yoga studios worldwide). Both were viewed as career-makers (Choudhury could approve, or veto, a teaching license or studio application). Both created corporate frameworks that allowed them to prey on women (Choudhury hosts months-long "teacher trainings" that draw hundreds of devotees). And both have been accused of a range of sexual misconduct, including rape (Choudhury has settled millions of dollars' worth of civil suits, and a list of a half dozen women have come forward with allegations against him).

              The word that you will often hear in conjunction with Bikram Choudhury is guru. It is also a word that is applied to many people who work in the fitness industry. And that unofficial designation allowed him to get away with some truly heinous behavior.

But a vast chasm always existed between Choudhury's words and actions and how these words and actions have been interpreted. Yoga can be contemplative and spiritual, but Choudhury never was, and never even pretended to be. He acted haughty, drank Coca-Cola, ate fast food, wore a Rolex, and told the young women who attended his teacher trainings that nothing made him special other than their determination to think him so.

Of course, that must sound like precisely what a spiritual teacher would say. Young women attended his trainings eager to learn from "the guru" himself. This adulation he allegedly exploited, physically and emotionally -- many times over. "If you look at his values and his lifestyle there's nothing spiritual about it," Schestag says. "The cars and the watches and allowing people to fawn all over him -- it's disgusting."

In 2012, in a story for ABC's "Nightline," Choudhury showed off his collection of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, of which he owned approximately 40. The fact the business could amass this kind of wealth, despite how poorly it has always been run, proves the timeliness and cleverness of the yoga. And also proves what a cash cow it could have remained had its creator walked the straight and narrow.

              I propose that we get rid of the fitness guru designation. Guru has a mystical association, as if that person has some secret understanding of the world’s mysteries. In the case of Mr. Choudhury, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was just a guy who was good at teaching yoga. Deeming people gurus elevates them at the same time that it makes people feel like fitness is this un-knownable thing, this black box that has to be deciphered. Both of those things are bad. The first is bad because it allows people like Bikram Choudhury to get away with disgusting and criminal behavior. The second is bad because it makes fitness seem intimidating to the uninitiated and allows bad fitness information to circulate. Listen to the podcasts and then think about how many times you have heard the term ‘fitness guru’ applied to someone. Think about how that branding shaped the perception of that person. The vast majority of them are good people who would never do anything close to what Bikram Choudhury has done. But we don’t need gurus. We don’t need people to save us. We need to arm ourselves with knowledge so that we can save ourselves. We don’t need gurus, we need teachers.

Fighting the good fight: CrossFit Inc. has never been afraid of a fight. It is safe to say that there is a spirit of combativeness in the soul of the brand. And for the last couple of years, CrossFit has been taking on Big Soda. It seems like a classic David vs. Goliath story. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are worth $187 billion and $145 Billion respectively while CrossFit Inc. (a private company) was valued at $40 million as recently as 2012. But CEO Greg Glassman appears to have a very specific immediate objective: get Big Soda money out of health & wellness. From The Washington Post:

For Glassman, his visit to Taylor and his denunciation of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) are part of a very specific agenda: He is at war with America’s soda industry, which he accuses of corrupting the science around sugar while acting as an enemy to the general health of the country. The NSCA — which licenses physical trainers and is thus something of a competitor to CrossFit — was the starting point for his crusade, as well as its original target: The group publishes a journal that, several years ago, featured a study with a negative statistic about CrossFit injury rates; Glassman in turn discovered that the NSCA was partly funded by soda industry money. His indignation over this has now spiraled into a full-fledged war against Big Soda.  

              The evolution of this is fascinating. The potential for injury in CrossFit has always been a sore spot and the NCSA study alleged that 16% of the participants in its study had to quit due to “overuse or injury”. CrossFit took issue with that and began a legal battle. At the time, I thought that CrossFit was overreacting to what was a mostly positive study. I also suspected that CrossFit was trying to intimidate researchers with the threat of legal action. But then CrossFit started winning. The courts ruled that the NCSA had “spread inaccurate information about CrossFit, which is established as a competing brand”. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which is owned by the NCSA, retracted the study and the lead researcher left his position at Ohio State. The legal proceedings are ongoing but Glassman made an important discovery.

Along the way, Glassman noticed that the NSCA was partly funded by PepsiCo. And the closer he looked, the more soda money he found — supporting not just training organizations, but also health nonprofits, medical organizations, diabetes foundations, even the foundations supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. (A 2016 study by Boston University researchers found nearly 100 national health and medical groups were sponsored by Coca-Cola Co. or PepsiCo. The American Beverage Association, which speaks for the industry, said in response that it was “proud to support” organizations focused on “strengthening public health.”)

              Glassman has spent the last 3 years exposing the links between health sciences community and the soda giants as well as the dubious, and soda-friendly, science that has come out of it.

At the 2015 conference, James Hill, an obesity expert at the University of Colorado, delivered the keynote speech on a new nonprofit initiative: the Global Energy Balance Network. The network was pitching the message that consumers need not worry so much about what they are eating and instead should focus on staying active enough to burn those calories. Don’t look at the soda in your hand, the campaign suggested; look at your own sluggish lifestyle.

              The GEBN was shut down after it was revealed that it was primarily funded by Coca-Cola. And now Glassman has his sights set on Washington, where he hopes to start shaping government policy. I think that Glassman is most comfortable in the underdog role. With CrossFit on the cusp of taking over the fitness industry, he needed a new opponent. I’m glad to see him taking on someone outside the industry. This is a great read and I highly recommend that you follow the link.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: Speaking of CrossFit, there was a strange turn of events in the CrossFit world this week. A CrossFit box in Indiana announced that it was going to hold a LBGTQ Pride event. The box’s owners did not approve of what the coaches had planned and announced that the event had been canceled. This led to a backlash with member’s cancelling their memberships and staff quitting. The box is now closing its doors and will “no longer operate” at its current location. It is unclear whether ownership plans to re-open at another location in the future.

              If that wasn’t strange enough, spokesperson Russell Berger then decided that it would be a good idea to go on a tweet storm indicating his support for homophobic behavior. He quickly deleted the tweets but the damage was already done. CrossFit Inc. placed him on administrative leave and then terminated his employment. Russell Berger was one of the 2 Russells, whose mandate was to defend CrossFit from “junk science, yellow ignorance, and invincible ignorance”. He was one of the most high-profile employees of the Santa Cruz-based company and a fixture in the internet wars that CrossFit routinely wages.

              1st thought: this is how you handle a PR crisis. You take quick, decisive action that leaves no doubt as to where organization’s values lie. By the time I had even heard about this, Berger had already been let go and Greg Glassman had tweeted his support for CrossFit’s gay community.

              2nd thought: CrossFit Inc. usually acts like it doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it. I’m glad to see that they do care about promoting a culture of tolerance and acceptance for all people.

              3rd thought: Tolerance doesn’t mean that we have to be tolerant of someone’s intolerance.

Streaming: I have always been a fan of home fitness. There is nothing more convenient than working out at home and a lack of convenience is the number one obstacle to getting your workout in. Home fitness has come a long way in the last 15 years. It used to be Jane Fonda videos and a set of really cheap weights in the garage. Now, you can get quality weights from manufacturers like Rogue Fitness, who cater to people building garage gyms, and advances in technology have opened up a plethora of options in fitness classes. From Time:

Peloton is just one — albeit very popular — example of the latest revamp of the home gym, so crowded with the evidence of previous trends and the best intentions: old-school stationary bikes, treadmills and heavy bags. The bet this time is that the famously permeable interface between technology and human will goad fitness enthusiasts to forgo studios for workouts they can follow online. Fitness companies and exercise gurus have launched a wide range of at-home options, and most don’t require large up-front costs. A business called FORTË films classes and streams them to smartphones, laptops and TVs for $39 per month or $288 per year. Training apps such as Booya Fitness and Beachbody have cultlike followings, and studios across the country from Nicole Winhoffer’s NW Method in New York and Los Angeles to Mary Helen Bowers’ New York-based Ballet Beautiful offer streaming and on-demand classes too. Even large apparel companies like Nike and gym chains like Gold’s Gym have launched workout routines that play in the palm of your hand.

              There is no question that streaming fitness is exploding right now. The question is how will this effect brick and mortar gyms and studios. People love to proclaim that technology is going to displace gyms and trainers, which is not true. But it will shape them.

Lauren Kleban, the founder of LEKfit, a dance-inspired fitness method based in Los Angeles, started streaming classes in 2017 to reach more clients. Her studio counts I Feel Pretty’s Busy Philipps and Shameless star Emmy Rossum as fans, and scouring social media for #getlekfit returns sweaty selfies from users at home. Kleban’s $19.99-per-month service is so important to her business that her new flagship studio is being built with streaming in mind. “Everything will be designed around camera placement, client placement, and of course sound and lighting are playing an even bigger role than they would have normally,” she says. Still, Kleban takes pains to make sure that she properly connects with her streamers by holding weekly Instagram chats and attempting to learn as many of their names as possible. “As an instructor, I was always taught that people want to be acknowledged for what they’re doing,” she says.

              The number one reason that studios won’t die off is that there will need to be a testing ground for all of these classes. It will be interesting to see how much streaming molds the studio experience in the coming years. The thing that comes to mind is how the television industry molded the live sports experience. Professional sports stadiums have to balance being a soundstage for the television product with providing a great, in-person experience. Going forward, studios will probably face a similar challenge. Will there be an equivalent of the TV time-out?

Smartwatches: Apple has announced the launch of watchOS5, the OS for its line of Apple Watches. And the big news is that watchOS5 will include auto-detection. From Ars Technica:

My colleague Samuel Axon and I were immediately excited by the announcement of workout auto detection. (Auto detection allows the Apple Watch to know when you've been working out even if you haven't officially started a workout on the watch.)

To begin tracking a workout, you normally tap on the type of workout you want to record; doing so immediately launches a three-second countdown timer that ushers you into your workout. Previously, if you didn't select a workout to track before you began, the Apple Watch wouldn't record the exercise at all. In watchOS 5, though, even if you start exercising before consulting your Apple Watch, the device will detect your movement and nudge you after three minutes of activity. This haptic feedback prompts you to tap the screen to officially start that workout. When you do, the watch switches into workout tracking mode—and even includes the amount of time it missed before you pressed start.

               I don’t own a smartwatch but that sounds like a pretty cool feature. I can see why people are excited by its addition to the Apple Watch. I wonder if anyone else has thought of this.

Plenty of other wearables, including those from Fitbit and Garmin, have some form of auto detection. Like those other devices, the Apple Watch can only auto detect certain exercises: walking, indoor and outdoor running, pool and open water swimming, rowing, and elliptical training. This is likely due to the fact that these exercises have recognizable arm motions. (The only anomaly is walking, which has a 15-minute recognition threshold to account for people who do short spurts of walking regularly, such as during their commute.)

Auto detection can sense the end of a workout, too. I've often finished a strength-training session at the gym, hopped in my car, and drove home, only to realize that I never "ended" the workout. Within three minutes of ending your session, auto detect should stop its workout tracking.

While I was hoping to see auto exercise recognition or rep counting introduced in watchOS 5, auto detection nudges the fitness part of the OS forward in a positive way. Auto detection is standard on most other mid- to top-tier wearables made by big manufacturers, and it makes the smartwatch easier to use. Many of us forget to start tracking a workout on our watches before exercising, and it's a terrible feeling to work out but not have it "count." Auto recognition should prevent that from happening, at least with its eight current workout profiles.

              So a feature that is already “standard” in the industry is still a cause for excitement when Apple introduces it? Man, why would you want to compete with Apple in hardware? How can you win? Even when you innovate, you can’t win. Consumers will just wait for Apple to copy that feature. This is why I am so bear-ish on Fitbit’s future in hardware. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which things work out for them no matter how innovative they could prove to be. Either retreat to the low-end of the market and pivot to software. 

TidBits:

-The CrossFit Regionals are over and the field for the CrossFit Games is set

-Fitness tracker sales are down, smartwatches sales are up

-Maybe they should get rid of the TV’s altogether

-You don’t need a pre-workout

-Because the world isn’t weird enough already, Dmitry Klokov is embroiled in the Russia scandal